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Explainer: What do we know about the new Covid variant and how worried should we be?

The B.1.1.529 variant has first been found in cases in parts of Africa and Asia.

Image: Shutterstock

MINISTER FOR HEALTH Stephen Donnelly has said he is “deeply concerned” by the announcement of a new variant of Covid-19.

The Department of Health said in a statement that it has been monitoring the emergence of the new variant, B.1.1.529, which has been identified in a number of countries in southern Africa.

The variant has also been detected in Hong Kong, Israel, and Belgium has also detected the first announced case in Europe.

The World Health Organisation (WHO) is meeting with South African authorities today while the HSE and the Department of Health are continuing to monitor the situation.

But how is this new variant different from previous variants and how dangerous is it?

When did it first appear?

The National Institute for Communicable Diseases (NICD) in South Africa first detected the new variant in on 22 November. 

Samples were then uploaded to a coronavirus variant tracking website on 23 November from South Africa, Hong Kong and then Botswana. A total of 59 samples have been uploaded on to the website so far.

Three samples are from Hong Kong, three are from Botswana and the rest are from South Africa.

Outlining the situation in South Africa, one senior scientist said: “If we look at the results they had up to a week ago, less than 1% of people were testing positive in lots of areas. That’s increased very dramatically in some parts to 6% in the last few days, and so that makes me concerned quite rapidly on people that may be arriving [in the UK] now.”

Are there any cases in Ireland?

The Department of Health has confirmed that no cases have yet been detected in Ireland.

“No cases of this variant have been reported in Europe to date, but the Minister for Health is deeply concerned,” it said. 

“The Department has been in contact with colleagues in Northern Ireland and we will continue to liaise with UK authorities.

“The Department’s advice to the Minister will continue to be informed by relevant guidance emanating from the ECDC and the WHO.”

What does this mean for travellers?

The EU is expected to announce an immediate travel ban to southern Africa. 

European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen said that she “proposes, in close coordination with the member states, to activate the emergency brake to stop air travel from the southern African region”.

Foreign Affairs Minister Simon Coveney has said that a decision on stopping flights from the southern African region should be made later today, and sources have indicated to The Journal that a decision is imminent.

According to their website, the Department of Foreign Affairs “no longer advises against non-essential travel to South Africa based on the current assessment of Covid-19 risks”.

It advises people to “avoid non-essential travel” to Botswana, and urges people to exercise a “high degree of caution” if travelling to South Africa or Namibia.

The UK has suspended flights from South Africa, Namibia, Lesotho, Eswatini, Zimbabwe and Botswana. 

From midday, all UK and Irish residents will be banned from entering the UK if they have been any of the six countries over the last ten days. 

How is it different from the other variants?

Despite only being tracked for the past three days, the virus has been identified as having 30 different mutations already. By comparison, that is twice as many as the Delta variant, which has been the most prominent variant in Ireland over the past few months.

“The big issue with this variant is the number of mutations in the spike protein,” Professor of immunology at DCU Christine Loscher told The Journal.

“This could mean that it’s more transmissible and that it’s going to transmit more easily from person to person. That’s why we’re concerned, because we don’t know as yet what that means for this virus and its variants.”

An important question will be whether it can overtake the Delta variant to become the dominant strain, as Delta did with Alpha and as Alpha did with the previous strains of the virus. 

Data shared on Twitter by University College London Professor Christina Pagel suggests that this might already be happening in South Africa. 

Will the vaccines protect people against it?

It’s too early to say. The mutations could potentially make the variant more transmissible and evade the protection given by prior infection or vaccination.

Loscher said that while there are concerns that the variant “has so many mutations on the spike protein that the antibodies we’ve made with our vaccines aren’t as good” against it, we won’t find out just yet.

“It’s probably going to take a couple of weeks to see how potentially evasive the variant might be to the antibodies that are activated by the vaccines, and that’s what scientists are literally working on right now,” she said. 

The NCIP has said that based on their understanding of the mutations of the variant, “partial immune escape is likely, but it is likely that vaccines will still offer high levels of protection against hospitalisation and death.”

In a statement to The Journal, a spokesperson for Pfizer said: “Pfizer and BioNTech are remaining vigilant, and we are constantly conducting surveillance efforts focused on monitoring for emerging variants that potentially escape protection from our vaccine.”

“As always, we will continue to follow the science as we examine the best approaches to protecting people against COVID-19.”

They added that in the event that vaccine-escape variant emerges, they expect to be able to develop and produce “a tailor-made vaccine against that variant in approximately 100 days, subject to regulatory approval”. 

Has it been classed as a “variant of concern”?

The WHO has yet to classify the new variant as a variant of concern. 

The organisation are meeting South African authorities today to assess the new variant, and may designate it as either a variant of interest or a variant of concern, spokesperson Christian Lindmeier told a media briefing in Geneva.

“Early analysis shows that this variant has a large number of mutations that require and will undergo further study,” he said, adding that it “will take weeks to understand what impact this variant has”.

“Researchers are working to understand more about the mutations and what they potentially mean for how transmissible or virulent this variant is, and how they may impact on diagnostics, therapeutics and vaccines.”

If the WHO designate it as a variant of concern, it will be given a Greek letter, such as what happened with Alpha and Delta.

However, the organisation say that national authorities may choose to designate other variants of local interest and concern.

The UK have yet to classify it as a variant of concern, as scientists say they do not have enough evidence on its levels of transmissibility. However, some have said they are concerned.

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Professor Ravi Gupta, a professor of clinical microbiology at the University of Cambridge, has said: “B.1.1.529 has signatures of cumulative mutation indicating that it emerged in a chronic infection.

“B.1.1.529 does certainly look of significant concern based on mutations present. Many have been shown to impact binding by neutralising antibodies, and some are known to increase the ability of virus to enter cells or to make them fuse together to allow cell-cell spread.”

Professor Neil Ferguson, a member of the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage), said: “The B.1.1.529 variant has an unprecedented number of mutations in the spike protein gene, the protein which is the target of most vaccines.

“There is therefore a concern that this variant may have a greater potential to escape prior immunity than previous variants.

“However, we do not yet have reliable estimates of the extent to which B.1.1.529 might be either more transmissible or more resistant to vaccines, so it is too early to be able to provide an evidence-based assessment of the risk it poses.”

It is known as a “variant under monitoring”, meaning scientists believe it may pose a future risk, but its impact is unclear.

HSE CEO Paul Reid has said that the variant is “an obvious cause for concern”.

“The concern in terms of any variant is that it can potentially evade the body’s immune response and make it more transmissible, which we know from Delta can have significant impacts,” he said. 

In the UK, scientists are eager to acquire live virus cultures so it can be examined, but this takes time. It can take seven to 10 days at least to grow enough virus that can be shared with other scientists so they can study how it mutates and changes.

Officials will now also have to wait for data to come from South Africa. The earliest they are expecting evidence to come through is two to three weeks, but it could be as long as four to six weeks.

- With reporting from PA and AFP. 

About the author:

Jane Moore

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